Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Boston Rocks

For years, America’s bicycle advocates and Bicycling Magazine have scolded Boston as being one of America’s worst cycling cities. We were lumped in with such horror shows as Tampa, Dallas or Miami.

Those brickbats helped to spawn many recent changes. But Boston never deserved to be in the same category as Tampa (where, by the way, I attended college). Boston has stunning advantages over several other cities, including some that are often placed on pedestals as examples of bike havens.

The initiatives of Mayor Thomas Menino and the effervescent Nicole Freedman are to be applauded. I’m a big fan of bike lanes, signage, racks, etc. Not that I needed them but they create a stamp of approval for citizens. I state repeatedly that bike lanes do not gain cyclists road share as much as they gain cyclists mind share.

They have put in 15 miles of bike lanes in Boston, which nicely complements the network of lanes and rail trails in neighboring communities. And the work of MassBike, securing access for cyclists on the local transit system (albeit somewhat restrictive) has yielded great returns. And the recent bike summit in which the top department heads of Metro Boston took their lumps and pledged to improve the cycling environment proved a brave endeavor.

With just a bit more of a nudge, a new study out confirmed for me that Boston could become the Copenhagen of America. While the podium for that competition is currently held by Portland, Minneapolis and San Francisco, I foresee Boston moving to the top in just 10 years.

Many traditional bike advocates will smugly chuckle at my prediction. They would dust off the top spot on the podium for such locales as Chicago, Denver, or Sacramento, where great headlines have been written, before ever considering Boston.

Those cities currently holding Bike Friendly status deserve the applause: Philadelphia, Portland, New York, Boulder, etc. But in 2009 such places as Naperville, Ill., Columbus, Ohio, and Irvine, Calif., and received bronze status as Bike Friendly cities.

Having visited each of those towns, I will tell you that none of them are all that bike friendly. These are sprawling locations with most of its socio-economic pulse beating out of strip malls along arteries wide and fast and clogged with customers of Wendy’s, Best Buy, Home Depot, and Cracker Barrel.

The sum is often a lot less than the parts. I do not state this to tear down these designations nor to discourage those trying to win them, but I must challenge the criteria. Part of the criteria could be the end result of those efforts: what percentage of the population is actually cycling.

I am reminded of some of the horrible tree forts we once constructed as boys. Adding more nails and some scrap lumber did not make up for a poorly designed or executed base of the fort. We cannot simply apply a checklist of items – a bike lane, some racks, a rail-trail, etc. - and attach that to a fundamentally flawed design and label that as “bike friendly.” Frankly, Irvine, California, with its freeways and malls and high-speed limits should NEVER be given such status so long as a cyclist cannot comfortably access the majority of its commercial outlets.

My gut belief in this was borne out recently by the Alliance for Biking and Walking Benchmark 2010 study. It’s a powerful study you can see here: Alliance for Biking and Walking 2010 Benchmark Study

Despite its oft vilified lack of facilities, Boston comes in at number 15 with 1 percent of all trips being done on a bike. And yes, Boston out-pedals New York City, which has made massive advances to its bike infrastructure. So guess who is not in the top 10? Those cities we’ve been celebrating such as Columbus, Irvine, Naperville, and Louisville.

And those Sun Belt nightmares of Dallas, Tampa, Miami and Houston are the bottom of the barrel.

What makes a city truly bike friendly? A lot of people on bikes! Louisville, Ky., is a city I visit often and must compliment for its efforts to improve cycling. They have bronze medal status as a Bike Friendly Community. But they rank 37th on the list with just 0.3 percent ridership.

So what keeps Bostonians riding? Consider these factors:

1. Not much of a college town. Suffolk County alone has 24 colleges and universities. College kids ride bikes. Boston is the world's largest college town. With or without bike lanes, more bikes make it safer and less hostile for more bikes.

2. The T. A critical component to making a city bike friendly is to give the bike commuter a Plan B in the form of a transit system. In our case, this would be Plan T, as in the MBTA. This is perhaps the finest transit system in America and recently they’ve allowed bikes on their trains and buses. This means darkness or foul weather can be overcome.

3. Compact design. When searching for an environmentally benign urban design, a lot of planners point to New England in the 1600s. As one of America’s oldest cities, Boston was built well before the automobile. Boston was built for walking. A bicycle can quickly get a person to any neighborhood in short order using any number of secondary or tertiary routes.

4. Getting somewhere. By bike in Boston one can actually GET somewhere. Too much emphasis is placed on cycling only for recreation. Florida’s Withlacoochee Trail, a splendid 44-mile path is one example, of where bike paths are not needed. It starts and ends nowhere. In Boston a cyclist can get to and from work, clubs, museums, restaurants, pubs, and schools far more conveniently than by car.

5. Bike culture. So much of American bike culture, dating back to Col. Pope’s manufacturing, came out of the Boston area. And much continues to come out of the Boston metro market in terms of shops, events, advocacy, clubs, and industry.

So what fills me with such confidence in our ability to become the Copenhagen of America?

It’s the OTHER half of the study, the walking part. While Boston is number 15 in biking, it is number one for walking. And when you combine Boston’s bikes with its pedestrians it is again number one, with 14.3 percent of the population walking or cycling to get around. And those gritty Northeast cities often shunned by those cyclists in the Pacific or Mountain time zones totally rock the stats. Boston, Washington and New York City have three of the top four slots. Philly is also in the top 10.

When you view the combination of walking and cycling, the list of cities NOT in the top 10 prove astounding. Those not even CLOSE to Boston include all of these communities deemed to be Bike Friendly Communities:
Long Beach

Me saying these Bicycle Friendly communities may NOT be all that bike friendly is akin to saying the emperor has no clothes! But if the true measure is how many people per capita are actually riding the list changes dramatically. As Boston has received little more than brickbats, many of those cities have gotten a lot of bouquets by leaders of bike advocacy.

While San Francisco and Portland will continue to lead the way, Boston will likely gain tremendous ground in short order. And the Sun Belt cities will undoubtedly continue to struggle. Converting a city of pedestrians into a bike friendly community is a far simpler task than trying to overhaul a city where cars are overwhelmingly dominant, transit is non-existent, and bikes are seen as curious toys for weekends.

Should Mayor Menino and his associates follow through on just some of the initiatives outlined last week, we should be enjoying that podium presentation by the year 2020.

Thanks for reading.


  1. You left out the cycling horror city of Houston. It's truly amazing that tens of thousands of Houstonians make their way to the suburbs, the countryside or The Woodlands every weekend to ride. A true testament to the dedication of the cycling community here, much like Boston.

  2. Have you tried riding a "bicycle priority lane" in Brookline yet?